Leslie Turk

It's Gannett, stupid

by Leslie Turk

Just how dumb does Daily Advertiser Publisher Leslie Hurst think we are? Yesterday she penned a front-page letter notifying readers of numerous format and content changes being introduced today at Gannett papers across the country. "These changes are a response to difficult economic times," she said, noting that while our community has been mostly spared by the national recession, "the challenges at the national level still affect us."

Among the changes: on Monday and Tuesday the papers are single section (you may have missed yours today as it blended into the concrete on your driveway), and there is no page dedicated to national and world news on these days.

What she meant to say is that parent company Gannett's challenges -- its corporate mindset of profit at any cost -- have it putting the squeeze on very profitable papers like The Daily Advertiser. The newspaper giant, publisher of flagship USA Today, has been slashing jobs at its publications across the country -- including locally at The Daily Advertiser, Daily World and Quik Quarter (though Hurst has not been forthcoming with those details). Our latest, unconfirmed tally puts local job losses over the past several months at about 75. Gannett also owns The Times of Acadiana, which has not experienced staff cuts because, well, it has no staff. Clearly the staff and content cuts are way out of whack with Gannett's profitability.

Why should Lafayette, where Gannett pocketed $7.8 million in the first three quarters of 2007 on the Advertiser alone -- a whopping 33.52 profit margin on $23.2 million in ad sales -- suffer for the chain's problems? And while those earnings are likely down a tad this year, there is certainly no clear parallel between this decline and the kind of bloodshed and content and quality changes taking place here. In a nutshell, Gannett is asking a community that has supported this paper for decades to take one for the team. And the team itself is not hurting nearly as bad as you might think -- or as Gannett and its local publisher would have you think.

It's greed, people, plain old corporate greed. You see, the daily's new role is to send home to McLean, Va., even bigger profits to offset the measly (note the sarcasm) 10-15 percent returns generated by many of its sister papers in other communities. So the Lafayette strategy is cut content, raise profits even higher and to hell with long-term consequences. Readers and advertisers be damned.

On top of the flimsy little paper delivered today (remember the good old days when you could actually feel the bump if you accidently rode over your paper in the driveway?), which weighs all of 2 ounces, The Advertiser recently spiked the cost of its paper from 50 cents to 75 cents. Today's family-owned Advocate, on the other hand, weighs 5.6 ounces and still costs only 50 cents.

If there were ever a case for local ownership, Gannett has laid it out more beautifully than anyone else could have. In the spirit of full disclosure, The Independent Weekly is locally owned and in the past year has had one layoff and in recent months instituted a single digit, company-wide salary cut. The cuts were made primarily to bring the newspaper in line with other alternative weeklies across the nation and to prepare for what might hit locally in light of falling oil and natural gas prices.

Gannett is biting the hand of the local community that feeds it. And none of us should put up with it. And by the way, if you have any questions or comments about the changes, it seems Hurst herself doesn't want to hear them. In both letters she suggests readers -- and presumably advertisers -- call the paper's information center at 289-6397 or e-mail its executive editor, Denise Richter, at [email protected] (When I tried to reach Hurst a couple of weeks ago for a story on the cuts, my call was inadvertently transferred to customer service. When I told the gentleman on the phone that I was trying to reach Leslie Hurst, he asked me who she was.)
(Editor's Note: Gannett's paper-by-paper margins and ad sales for the first three quarters of 2007 are posted here on www.gannettblog.blogspot.com, which is run by a former Gannett editor. The figures do not include additional revenue from circulation.)_